Germany, Canada, and Israel Stand Out in a Parlous World on the Eve of 2012

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My year-end column will be a tour of the political horizon, with a reflection on the comparative virtues of good government. But anyone gripped by the fear that I am going to sermonize some treacle about civics at them has nothing to fear.

In all of the European Union, apart from a few of the very small states, only Germany, Finland, Poland, and the Czechs qualify as well-governed. They have all kept unemployment and deficits under control, returned to economic growth, and avoided catastrophic immigration policies. It is the last problem that has bedeviled the otherwise fairly commendable Dutch (although their taxes are too high).

An honorary mention must go to Hungary, whose leader, Viktor Orban, has sent the IMF packing, refused austerity of the hair-shirted Mother-Hubbard school that has made matters worse in Greece, and has shown the panache of Count Andrassy (who made Hungary a co-equal force in the Austrian Empire, largely by his prowess with Habsburg princesses). Another special case is Belgium, which has recently installed a government after a year with just the king, civil service, and armed forces. The lesson in this government-free sabbatical is not a flattering one for politicians.

Most of the former Soviet Union is in a parlous state. Belarus is a Stalinist Russian satrapy; the Caucasus countries are in turmoil; the Asian Muslim republics are indifferent despotisms, and Ukraine is divided between the pro-and anti-Russian populations with the Russophilic president having imprisoned the comely and flamboyant nativist leader (who also is his narrowly defeated opponent in the late election), Julia Timoshenko, in a spurious political process made more offensive by the fact that the principal prosecution witnesses spoke Russian and not Ukrainian.

Russia itself may be undergoing a profound change; not a superficial upheaval, as is the case in most countries affected by the Arab Spring. The unfathomable corruption and cynicism of Vladimir Putin, with his infantilistic macho cult (which is slightly reminiscent of Mao’s supposed swim in the Yangtze), was never going to hold for long the credence of the culture of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Tchaikovsky. Unless he puts himself at the head of a movement to turn Russia into a great Western democracy, which is its real vocation, he will just be a disreputable care-taker for the person who does.

Turkey is putting up good economic numbers, and flourishing without the militarily imposed corruption that the Kemalist guarantors of secularism wallowed in as the price of preserving modern Turkey. Tiresome though Turkey’s anti-Israel posturing and pandering to the Arabs is, it is hard to begrudge the Turks being toasted and feted as an eminent nation in the Near East and North Africa. They stood, fez in hand, for many demeaning decades on the doorstep of Europe, like King Henry kneeling in the snow before the pope’s window at Canossa, to receive such condescensions as only senior European officials can inflict (on behalf of an EU that has now partially collapsed at Turkey’s feet).

In the rest of the Middle East, only Israel is doing well, though the Palestinian West Bank is still rebuilding quickly from the rubble left by Yasser Arafat’s terrorist provocations. Morocco is trying, apparently successfully, to introduce substantive reforms without just giving the government to the mobs. Egypt is in shambles, and no government that is likely to emerge will have any aptitude to produce the economic growth that is all that could reinvigorate an over-populated country in profound secular decline.

The Saudis and their Gulf protégés have just doubled down on their long-standing policy of paying petro-money blackmail to both democratic and theocratic dissidents, and are trying to relieve pressure with a calibrated program of incremental reforms (e.g., drivers’ licenses for women). They are spreading the oil money around liberally, a tactic that has worked so far. But blackmailers in the end either take over or are destroyed by their paymaster. It is never an indefinitely prolonged or even momentarily easy coexistence.

In Syria, I don’t think the Assad regime can survive. It is firing live ammunition at protesters, but the demonstrations continue, and there are steady defections from the army. Even the Soviets and Chinese had to use Mongolian units to suppress the Hungarian uprising in 1956, and the Tiananmen demonstrations in 1989. Draftee armies cannot be relied upon to continue for long killing their own civil populations, and Syria’s minority Alawites can’t hold against this level of disaffection by the Sunni majority indefinitely.

It is hard to be optimistic about Iraq. The United States had not departed 24 hours when Prime Minister Nouri alMaliki, who stole the last election and is propped up by the anti-American, Iranian-sponsored Moqtada al-Sadr, claimed to arrest his Sunni vice premier, who has taken refuge in Kurdistan. The United States was on firm ground, in international law and in legitimate national interest, in disposing of Saddam Hussein.

But disbanding the Iraqi army and police, and thereby sending 400,000 Iraqi soldiers and police into the country unemployed but with their weapons and munitions, must rank — alongside failure to detect Chinese infiltration in Korea and failure to cut the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Indochina — as one of the greatest military blunders in American history.

That plunge into nation-building in Iraq and wholesale democratization, along with the avoidable financial crisis, assures George W. Bush the status of a failed president. Colossal deficits will confer the same status on Barack Obama, who presumably thinks that if Iraq now blows up he can blame it all on Bush (in truth, they will share the blame). Even the strongest country in history, coming off overwhelming strategic victories in the Second World War and the Cold War, can’t take senior official incompetence indefinitely. Unfortunately, the end of such incompetence is not yet in sight.

China is finally facing the discordant music of a command economy, rampant corruption, accelerating inflation, and declining international tolerance of its false financial reporting, dishonest trade practices, and attempted satellization of its neighbors. But the rest of East Asia and Australasia are performing well, despite Japanese aging and political sclerosis. India is having a normal anti-corruption pause on what was always bound to be a very long trail to full economic development. Pakistan is fairly openly a failed state, trying, from a position of nuclear-armed weakness, to play all sides against each other. The army is reduced to issuing press releases that it is not considering a coup d’état.

Canada is doing well by any measure, though its economy is at risk of sluggishness due to the slow-down in the United States. If Canada were to create an informal club for those countries that share its continuing economic growth, with unemployment and inflation safely in single digits, and with unthreatening debt levels and stable and democratic political institutions, few would be eligible for membership. Israel would qualify; Germany would take the chair, and Canada would be vice chair. We have earned it.

Happy New Year to all.

This dispatch was first published in the National Post.

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